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Employers Struggle To Navigate Employee Online Activity Monitoring

A recent study commissioned by Forbes Advisor and conducted by OnePoll surveyed 1,000 remote and hybrid employees earlier this year and found that almost half (43%) said their employers were monitoring their online activity at work.

Does your organization monitory employees’ online activity while they’re on your network or the internet? There are valid reasons to do so — including to gauge productivity, secure intellectual property, strengthen cybersecurity, and catch legally dubious behavior. Yet surveillance remains a sensitive issue that every employer must address in light of their own culture and risk tolerance.

Data Points

From a technology standpoint, it’s never been easier to monitor employees’ network activity and internet usage. Today’s software allows you to track things such as:

  • Active work hours
  • Websites visited
  • Chats and other messaging
  • Apps used
  • Files accessed

If you so choose, you can also take periodic screen captures or even monitor employees’ screens in real time.

In addition, most online activity monitoring products allow employers to designate words, phrases, and website URLs that, when detected, raise red flags as potential violations of organizational policies. Some software can be customized to block sensitive data from escaping, whether it’s transmitted via email, entered into Web forms or saved on remote laptops.

Finally, just about every kind of surveillance software generates activity reports, also customizable to your specifications, which are sent automatically to authorized individuals.

Best Practices For Online Activity Monitoring

If you decide to monitor employees, it’s critical to fully understand the legal implications. Generally, employers have the upper hand — particularly when networks and devices owned by the organization are being monitored.

For example, most employees know they can’t expect work email messages sent via their employers’ networks to be considered private. But the laws are murkier, and can vary from state to state, when communications are made via personal email accounts accessed on employer-owned devices.

Employers are usually on the strongest legal ground when they warn employees — in writing — of precisely how network and internet activities will be monitored. A good starting point is to display a warning, written in consultation with an attorney, that users see when they log on to your network. You can even require users to click an acknowledgement of the warning to proceed.

Whether or not such a warning is displayed on your network, be sure to include it, as well as full descriptions of your network and internet usage policies, in your employee handbook. Require new hires to read and sign an acknowledgement of the warning and policies as part of their onboarding. You might also regularly reissue the warning and reiterate the policies to staff members as part of your wider cybersecurity efforts.

When developing a warning about monitoring, and devising network and internet usage policies, be sure you’re able to clearly outline valid, legally defensible reasons for these measures. If the warning and your policies appear vague, arbitrary or needlessly intrusive, it could adversely affect hiring, morale, and retention.

Benefits & Risks

Keeping tabs on employees’ online activities can be a viable way to support your organization’s financial well-being by driving productivity, curtailing waste, protecting sensitive data, and avoiding legal woes.

That said, the importance of qualified legal advice can’t be overstated. Court decisions involving the monitoring of employees have varied widely, despite similar fact patterns, largely because of variances in state laws. Consult with your attorney. And for help identifying and analyzing your organization’s technology costs, contact us.

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